Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Identifying the Flat Note in WarmaHordes

I have an interestingly ambivalent relationship with Warmachine and Hordes. I first discovered the Iron Kingdoms back when it was a d20 RPG setting, and I've loved it ever since. There really aren't any missed notes in that world, and the art and graphic presentation of both the RPG and miniatures lines is always top notch.

So I was happy to take the plunge into the world of WarmaHordes back in spring of 2014. But almost immediately, I started to hear a dissonant note among the previously flawless symphony of awesome. (Yeah, how's that for a metaphor?)

And I've been trying to figure out where that flat note was coming from ever since.

I think I've got it now.

Here's the thing: I'm a "fluff" guy. I like crunch, sure, but I play miniatures games for the story as much for the challenge of trying to beat my opponent. I'm not a "scenario only" type of gamer, don't get me wrong, but I like a bit of context to my games. Lack of fluff is one of the primary reasons I stopped playing Armies of Arcana, for example. It's not enough for me to just have "Amazons versus Undead" or "Russians versus Germans".

Having said that, I realize that a lot of folks don't give two bits about a setting's fluff and are perfectly happy with generic match-ups. But what I'm primarily seeing when it comes to how WarmaHordes is represented online is an almost willful dismissal of the setting's fluff within the context of gameplay. Which is ironic, considering that the Iron Kingdoms is probably one of the most fluff-heavy games out there, perhaps even more so than 40K.

The realization struck me when I was watching the latest WarGamerGirl battle report. These reports are always top notch (I'm a Patreon backer, because I want to see more!), but I realized what's missing from them is any sort of fluff. Even though they inevitably use a scenario, we're not told what the scenario is about or how the forces on the table fit into the scenario.

In this latest report, we're told that they're using the scenario "Incoming" but, although the setup and victory conditions of the scenario are flashed up on the screen, we are not told what the scenario is meant to signify. What's "incoming," precisely? Is this, like, attacker versus defender, or a meeting engagement, or what? The victory conditions don't help, either. We get the usual "boxes" on the table, but are not told why it's important that the factions control those boxes. (I was also a little disappointed to note the appearance of flat paper terrain in this report.)

Now, it might seem like I'm picking on WarGamerGirl, but I'm only singling her out because she strikes me as being right in the mainstream of WarmaHordes players. The culture of the game seems to focus around abstract, crunch-focused considerations. The game itself encourages a rather unrealistic flow of action, with the two factions lining up opposite each other scrimmage-style in one big long line. The game's pixel-bitching focus on "WYSIWYG" line of sight rules, and the crucial importance of LoS in the game, makes terrain almost a hassle to deal with. I've seen other W/H players expressing their preference for flat paper terrain, since it makes it easier to judge issues of LoS and positioning.

What of it, then? That's the question. Does this crunch-focused culture that pervades the community, that indeed seems to be encouraged by the rules themselves, affect my own W/H gaming in any way? Well, yes and no.

Certainly, I'm free to play the game with however much fluff I wish to inject, as always. But it's undeniable that the greater culture surrounding a game influences how one experiences the game itself; one of the appeals of the "OldHammer" movement is that it's extremely DIY and fluff-focused, both causes near and dear to my heart.

(My introduction to battle reports came in the pages of White Dwarf back in the early 90s, and those reports always had lots of fun little fluffy details, including snippets of fiction based off events in the battle. That's still my idea of a perfect battle report.)

Furthermore, knowing that the seeming majority of W/H players subscribe to this more crunch-heavy approach means that I'm a lot less likely to try and look for pick-up games among my local gaming community. It all feels a bit alienating.

As I said at the top of this post, I still love the Iron Kingdoms setting a decade after my first exposure. And, having identified what's been bothering me about Warmachine/Hordes all this time, I can take appropriate steps to no longer be bothered by said things. But I kind of wish it didn't have to be this way to begin with. I wish the game was more in line with Malifaux, which does an excellent job of effortlessly generating "fluffy" details even through its own crunch. Or, dare I say it, that W/H would get the "Age of Sigmar" treatment...?


  1. A while back I googled about trying a Warmachine campaign and came up with a few options in that vein, but yeah, officially it seems like PP doesn't really care to inject fluff into individual games, they just seem to dump more and more lore onto players with each WMH book release.

    I think the only way we're going to get any fluff into our games is by injecting them ourselves. Perhaps some sort of hybrid between a campaign system, the current tourney 'hero' system, and possibly some kind of IKRPG/Unleashed-lite?

    Would be a bit of work but I could see it being pretty fun to try.

    1. You know, maybe it's because there's always been an RPG element to the Iron Kingdoms that the fluff just isn't there in the wargame? Hm.

      Of course, we already have a certain level of fluff baked in to our games in the form of your ongoing IKRPG campaign arcs. All we have to do is say that our games (once we start playing "for realsies") take place in the continuity of _your_ version of Immoren, and Bob's yer uncle! :D

      So the first step is to figure out what Dominar Rasheth is doing tangling with the Cygnarians...

    2. When I get back from Japan I'll be picking up some Cryx, methinks...

      Now that I've had some time to ponder it, though, I'm thinking that, since you're sticking pretty exclusively with Skorne (for very good financial and time constraint-reasons), our 'fluff' should consist of the Skorne invasion into the Iron Kingdoms, as detailed in the Skorne Unleashed book.

      Which sounds quite awesome, to be honest, and sort of theme-appropriate to our individual expenditures in the WMH field, where I can't seem to keep from clicking 'buy' to save my wallet.

    3. Just saw this...for some reason it got tagged for moderation?

      At any rate, that sounds good to me! I enjoyed reading even the small amount of fluff that I had time to skim before our game last night. I've been mulling starting up an Everblight or Convergence collection, but I might just expand out horizontally instead by slowly accumulating s'more Skorne casters and units so it's not all Kingpin, all the time. I bought the "Forces of..." book for Skorne yesterday, and there's a lot of tasty options in there.

    4. If you want to start Everblight, I've got half a battle box with your name on it (the other half is Circle).

  2. I love this post for a few reasons:
    1) At my household, Wa/Ho is not flat, it's entirely muted. This is due to things at the LGS from last year, because my wife enjoys Malifaux and those are markedly similar systems. I'd love to at least try the RPG, but everything related to the Iron Kingdoms is dead and ash in this house.
    2) I agree, but think there's a fundamental, systemic reason why this happens: Kill the caster, win the game. The fact that you can just nuke a dude and win, and with the right group against the wrong group you can do it on day one, means that focusing on the scenario is automatically a difficult thing. You need to care about the scenario in order to construct an rp.

    I started 40k as a Daemon player, and spent the first 8 or so months of playing just getting stomped. Once the new edition rolled around, suddenly I got to have real, engaging rp, because I'd actually be around in order to accomplish something. In 40k, killing the Warlord is a thing, but it's not game fact, the game's designed so that it probably isn't a game ender, just a major setback. Plus, my daemons could run around the board and infest key points, creating actual, engaging narratives.

    The reason my wife won't play Warmachine has a lot to do with how the (terrible) pressganger from Fort Collins introduced folks to the game. He played a demo game with someone from the club, and killed him on turn two by freezing his entire force and then charging in and chopping him down with that fine-hatted red lady from the Russian faction. That's like winning a game with Battle of Wits in magic; fun for you, and not really anyone else.

    This all feeds into why I like the rpg system for Wa/Ho so much! It's a really rich world, but I don't think that the mini game really encourages exploring that. When you're down to just five or so folks, and one of them is an alligator-man, then I think you can truly explore the world they've created.

  3. Ugh, sorry Seth and Dave--just saw these comments in Moderation Purgatory. I've changed my settings so that doesn't happen again (hopefully).


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